Ice911: Buying time for green innovation

Her "inconvenient hobby," as Leslie Field sometimes calls it, could buy critical time for the green innovation community.

Creating "cool solutions for a melting world" is the stated goal of Ice911 Research, a Silicon Valley nonprofit research corporation founded by Field in 2008. Through Ice911, she — in collaboration with a team of science and engineering specialists, and multiple business and climate advisors — is working to "restore the earth's refrigerator by slowing down the melt of polar ice."

A Stanford EE consulting professor, MEMS and nanotechnology consultant, and inventor on more than 41 patents, Field complements her day job with this planet-saving mission in engineering and materials science. She described Ice911 in an exploratory working session with NASA scientists earlier this month: "Ice911 is creating a way to rebuild the multi-year reflective 'bright ice' in the Arctic, in order to slow the Arctic melt."   

It does so by raising the "albedo" of polar ice — a measure of its reflecting power. "Ice reflects most of the sunlight, while the ocean absorbs most of it. As a result, the more the ice melts — the faster it melts," explained Kimberly Wiefling, business advisor to Ice911.

The planet-stabilizing ice in the breathtakingly beautiful Arctic is disappearing at a pace that exceeds IPCC predictions. James Balog, filmmaker and lover of the Arctic, has documented this process artistically in his award-winning documentary "Chasing Ice." Ignatius Rigor of the Polar Science Center has documented it scientifically in his Age of Sea Ice study. The former has been called "hauntingly beautiful." The latter is nothing less than an urgent wake-up call.

This Arctic melt is of critical concern, as climate scientists say it is causing one-third of overall temperature rise, severe storms and rainfall and weather pattern changes. It also can cause many downstream dangerous consequences, including accelerated sea level rise and the release of methane, the ultra-potent GhG (greenhouse gas), which resides beneath sea ice and the Arctic permafrost. Worse, these dynamics generate a powerful downward cycle.

The cost of adaptation to sea level rise is estimated in the billions of dollars per year for many coastal cities — just to shore up against the changes. It could cost trillions after 2050. "We can pay to solve it, or pay much more not to solve it," Wiefling said. Smart cities in coastal areas should take heed.

The issue has moved far beyond the fate of the polar bear.

"There is no question in my mind that Field's work is one of the half dozen or so most important research projects underway globally on mitigating climate change — measured by its ability to provide large scale leverage on the problem," said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force and a member of Ice911's Governing Board. "The reason for its importance stems from the dearth of options to control warming already underway from CO2 emissions."

Ice911 is one of the projects featured in an article by Robert Olson on "Soft Geoengineering," published in Environment Magazine in late 2012. Writes Olson: "Acceptable technologies would only lightly touch biological systems, have benign social impacts and be rapidly reversible if problems arise, among other criteria." Ice911 embraces these requirements and adds others: fast to implement, sustainable solution and safe materials.

Stimulated by their working session with Field, NASA Ames Space Portal Director Daniel Rasky expressed interest in a potential partnership between NASA Ames and Ice911.

"How can we get [a solution to the polar ice melt] to scale, that will have impact within 20 years?" he asked.

As one NASA astrophysicist participating in the roundtable of scientists and business people observed, "Ice911 is the best trick I've heard of yet."

A partnership between Ice911 and NASA indeed could be a potent relationship. NASA has extended its mission to take on the challenge of planetary sustainability, an area Rasky focuses on with initiatives and partnerships. Throughout NASA's history it has developed advanced life support systems. In recent years, it has established a sustainability base at the Ames Research Center (ARC) and partnered with Sustainable Silicon Valley (SSV) to promote planetary sustainability solutions from inside and outside of NASA. Rasky has a stated goal to "establish the Planetary Sustainability Collaboratory (PSC)" to "take on the world's greatest challenges."

Working with Ice911 would allow NASA to literally create time and space for the research and rollout of new and existing innovations on a national and global basis.

NASA's expertise in modeling, global monitoring and scaled field-testing would mesh elegantly with Ice911's next process steps. These next steps are to test the methods at scale in Greenland, make adjustments based on those findings and deploy at scale in the Arctic.   

"Through NASA Earth Exchange, we can find the right people," Rasky said. "This solution looks doable, practical."

"If you can buy a few weeks on either side of the melting cycle," Field said, "you can do a lot."

Iceberg image by Niyazz via Shutterstock.